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Ed Rotberg


Ed Rotberg was a key member of Atari's coin-op division, back when the staples of action gaming were introduced with each new Atari arcade game: "Missile Command," "Asteroids," "Centipede," "Tempest"; the list goes on. During his first stint at Atari in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ed was the primary force behind the 3-D tank game, "Battlezone." He worked for Atari Games again a few years later, having a guiding hand in "Blasteroids" (a 1987 update to "Asteroids"), "S.T.U.N. Runner," and, with Ed Logg, "Steel Talons."

(What's the difference between Atari and Atari Games? Both the home computer/home video game and coin-op divisions of Atari were originally united under the name Atari, Inc. When Time/Warner sold Atari in 1984, the coin-op division spun off into Atari Games, an entirely separate company. The rest of Atari, Inc. marched on as Atari Corporation. In 1993, Atari Games was again purchased by Time/Warner and renamed to Time Warner Interactive. In 1996 it was sold once more, returning the name to Atari Games.)

During most of the years between tours of duty at Atari, 1981-1986, Ed was Vice President of Software at Sente, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's new coin-op company. Later, he worked for Apple Computer and 3DO--two companies that have attracted a surprising number of old-time game folks.

Did you write any games prior to being hired at Atari?

Prior to working at Atari I had mostly written text-based games. One interesting exception to this was for my senior independent study project at the University of Michigan. I wrote a lunar lander program that ran on a PDP-9 with a 339 vector display. It's interesting to note that the instructor for that course was none other than Jim Blinn.

What was the atmosphere in the coin-op industry at the time? What did you think of the games being produced?

To my mind, this was the Golden Age of the coin-op video game industry. Not only did this period see the boom of the arcade business, but it was also the most innovative period in the industry. Many of the games designed during this period are still being copied in some form or another on platforms today.

What was the hardware like in your first coin-op game, "Atari Baseball"?

The whole idea behind this game was to use the same hardware and cabinet design that was used to make the very successful "Atari Football" game. As such, this project was the closest I came to doing a coin-op project entirely by myself. It consisted of a 6502 microprocessor and either 2K or 4K of ROM space with maybe a half K of RAM. I could probably check the board that I have to figure it out exactly. It had a monochrome display with two bits per pixel. All of the audio was discrete circuitry. We did, however, prototype a voice system for this game that was developed by Dan Pliskin. It used delta-modulation technology and played back a sampled voice saying such things as "Strike," "Ball," "Foul," and "Yer out!" It didn't make it into the final product. I believe that I have the only prototype of this voice unit at home. Even though it never made it into production, it was probably the first voice unit ever put into a coin-op game.

How did the concept for "Battlezone" develop?

It actually developed in one of our company brainstorming sessions. We had recently developed the vector display technology, thanks to Howard Delman, and of course our first thoughts were to do a first-person 3-D perspective game. I honestly don't remember who first proposed the tank format concept at those meetings.

Was it difficult to get the 3-D graphics moving quickly enough?

Well, yes and no. I didn't have too much trouble with the speed because the system was designed to be able to do the level of graphics that we were attempting. However, another 3-D project on the same hardware that started at the same time did have speed problems when they started out. We took two different approaches to the designs of our software. Rather than trying to get a bunch of stuff up on the screen quickly, I designed a data organization that allowed me to efficiently use the "math coprocessor" and vector generator. I was later in getting up our first graphics, but as the overall design was sound, once I got going, speed was not really too much of an issue.

I should explain that the system that was used for "Battlezone" was actually a three processor system. There was the 6502 which was the central processor and did all of the game logic. There was also a custom microcoded bit-slice processor for doing the math transforms. The vector generator itself was the third processor; you dynamically created instructions for it to draw the vectors.

It would be remiss not to point out that a lot of "Battlezone's" speed can be attributed to work that other people did for the project as well. Jed Margolin came up with some clever 3-D math shortcuts, and Mike Albaugh did most of the microcoding for the bit-slice processor that was used in both of those 3-D titles.

What's the story behind the U.S. Army version of "Battlezone"?

There was a group of consultants for the Army--a bunch of retired generals and such--that approached Atari with the idea that the technology for "Battlezone" could be used to make a training simulator for the then new Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The idea was that such a simulator could be made into a game that would encourage the soldiers to use it. They would learn not only the basic operation of the IFV technology, but would also learn to distinguish between the friendly and enemy vehicle silhouettes.

They approached us with this in December of 1980 and found a champion in the company in Rick Moncrief. They wanted a prototype to be finished in time for a worldwide TRADOC conference, being held via satellite, in March 1981.

What changes were made to the original version of the game?

Quite a number of changes were made. First of all, a new controller was developed that replicated the feel and functionality of the ones used in the IFV. This controller, by the way, became the basis for the controller used in a number of future Atari coin-ops, the first and most notable of which was "Star Wars." It differed from the one used in "Star Wars" in that it had buttons/switches for each thumb, forefinger, and palm. This allowed rotations and elevation of the gun turret at two different rates of speed, plus other functions--all of which I can't remember right now.

The trainer also changed the ordnance from the fantasy shells used in "Battlezone" to the four different types actually carried in IFV: machine gun, incendiary shells, armor piercing shells, and TOW [wire-guided] missiles. These were modeled with accurate trajectories based upon information given to us, although we did not model in windage effects. Code was added to the bit-slice math processor to do the collision detection which was now much more complex and needed for many more shells at once, given the IFV's rate of fire.

New enemy models were added to the game which accurately depicted both friendly and enemy vehicles and helicopters. Once again these models were created by our staff from drawings given to us by the consulting group. Code was added to allow the player to switch on 12x magnification of the screen which mimicked the capabilities of the IFV range finder and a range finding reticle was added to enable targeting. Points were awarded for destroying enemy vehicles, but I can't recall whether we subtracted points for destroying friendlies.

There were probably many other changes, but it's been fifteen years now, and I'm probably forgetting some of them.

How did you feel about working on it?

I hated it! First of all, because of the short time frame involved, I practically lived at Atari for the first three months of 1981. That was pretty much a lost period of my life. Secondly, I was vehemently opposed to Atari getting into this sort of business at all. Remember, the world was a very different place in 1981 than it is now. There was still a Soviet Union who was perceived to be our nation's biggest threat. My contention was that many of us engineers had the option to go to work for companies doing military contracting, and we consciously chose to work at a company that was not so involved. Also, working as any kind of government contractor opens up a company to many additional rules and regulations.

This whole issue came to a head at our company's next brainstorming session. At one meeting I actually got into a shouting match with the president of the division at that time, Joe Robbins. This was in front of much of the company brass, including Ray Kassar.

How did you hook-up with Sente?

In October of 1981, Howard Delman, Roger Hector, and I resigned from Atari to form our own development company, Videa Inc. For our first two projects we did a coin-op game for Gottlieb and a prototype of a laser disc based point-of-purchase catalog shopping system for a company called By-Video. We were also doing some VCS game design on our own dollar.

When Nolan's non-competition agreement with Atari ran out, he approached us to become the video game division of Pizza Time Theater. He named this new division Sente which is a term from the game of Go, like Atari is.

Most of the Sente games have been all but forgotten. Were there any you thought deserved more attention?

One of my personal favorites was "Hat Trick." This actually did pretty well in the arcades, so we did a four-player version of the game. Unfortunately, it was never produced, but it was easily my all-time favorite Sente game. I've always had a soft spot for "Snake Pit," our first Sente product; "Mini Golf"; and "Gimme a Break"--a great billiards game.

Why did you return to Atari Games?

Because they asked me to. I was ready to get out of people management and back into game development, and Atari gave me the opportunity to do this.

"Blasteroids" came long after the previous "Asteroids" games. What's the story behind the revival of the concept?

I always wanted to do a rock/paper/scissors kind of game, and Dan Van Eldren, the Vice President of Engineering at Atari when I rejoined, wanted to revisit the "Asteroids" concept with a new twist. We thought that we could combine the two notions to gives us what we wanted. The original idea was that we would contrive some scenarios that would require a specific ship form to get through. However, as often happens, there was a hole in the manufacturing schedule, and our product got pushed forward. We had to rush it out, and it never got the tuning we had originally planned for it.

I also wanted to do something fresh with the graphics for this game. We commissioned Bill George, a model maker at Industrial Light and Magic, to design and build plastic models of the five player ship shapes in "Blasteroids." With the help of Rob Rowe, we then digitized them in the necessary rotations with the proper lighting. The asteroids themselves were digitized in the same fashion from some lava rocks that we got and painted white. Most of the other ships were created with 3-D modelers, but some were hand drawn.

Were you a fan of the original "Asteroids"?

Absolutely. I was one of the many people that Ed Logg had to drive out of his lab area so that he could work on the game. We were always sneaking in to play it whenever he stepped away for a while. There was a pretty fierce competition to get on the high score table, especially as this was the first Atari product that had a high score table.

How did "Blasteroids" do in arcades?

So-so. It was an eleven month project. I would like to believe that if we had more time we could have improved it significantly, but there are never any guarantees of that.

What are your feelings about the peculiar flood of shareware "Asteroids" and "Blasteroids" clones being written in the 1990s?

I think it's great! A lot of folks have nostalgic feelings about the games that they grew up with; I certainly do about games like Monopoly and Scrabble. For many people, "Asteroids" was their first big video game. Now these same people have way more computer power on their desks than we had in the game systems. Now they can do snazzy color graphics on top of a favorite game concept--which is largely what we did with "Blasteroids."

Where did the idea for "S.T.U.N. Runner" come from?

Another brainstorming idea. This one was based upon an idea that Carol Cameron submitted. In her original concept there were only tunnels, and you were racing against computer players as opposed to racing against the clock. There were other differences from the final game, but it was the seminal idea.

Are you surprised that although the coin-op was a hit, a good home version of "S.T.U.N. Runner" has yet to be written?

Not really. "S.T.U.N. Runner" was always a technology driven title. Until very recently the home systems haven't had the computing and rendering power to be able to do a viable job of it. Some of the new systems can actually do a lot better, though.

Why did you leave the game industry?

This is really a many part answer. As far as the industry itself goes it had become--and still is--severely polarized. The only titles that were succeeding were SSJPK fighting games--Side-Scrolling, Jump-Punch-Kick--a very few sports titles, and high-tech driving titles. The market had become completely indifferent to innovation in game design. It seemed that all our management wanted to see in development was whatever was currently earning money. For so many years Atari had led the industry in innovation by constantly looking forward. Now we weren't even looking over our shoulders, we were struggling to climb on a tired bandwagon.

There were also concerns that I had about the way the engineering department was being run. Five months before I left, I wrote a three page memo to my supervisor and the Vice President of Engineering detailing problems that I saw in department policies and morale. It was three months before the V.P. even acknowledged that I had written it.

Another reason had to do with what I saw coming as a change in the department's leadership. I didn't like the direction that was going either. It all added up, and when a good friend of mine, Owen Rubin, asked me to interview with Apple, I jumped at it.

Do you still keep in touch with other ex-Atari game people?

Most definitely! We were always a pretty close group, and I still get together with a lot of the gang, though not always with all of them at the same time. Between email and telephones, an even larger group of us manage to stay in touch.

Atari Games (and the coin-op division of Atari, Inc.) has had a long tradition of original and different game designs. Do you have any insight into why this may be?

I believe that this was brought about by a combination of management philosophy, a strong creative talent pool, and marketplace acceptance. I think that now at least two of those factors have changed dramatically. You need to have all three of these in place in order to enable true innovation and originality. They are all bound up in each other, though. If the market won't accept a "different" product, this puts pressure on management to not fund "different" products. The creative talent will feel the need to go elsewhere when this happens.

What modern games do you enjoy?

In the arcades, mostly the driving sims and those only to see how the technology has advanced. There aren't any really new things going on in coin-op that I have seen recently. Most of the games I play now are platform or PC based games. Lately I have been more into RPGs and tactical games, although this is subject to change without notice.